SMXL 2018 social media and digital conference in Milan

Every post-conference write-up stands or falls upon its ability to answer three simple questions: What’s new? What’s different? What should I do about it? The SMXL 2018 conference in Milan, Italy, is no different. Taking place at the end of a year that has seen massive change happen in the digital space SMXL 2018 is, arguably, even better placed than most to answer these questions.

But first, the obvious: are conferences still a thing? Yes, because I was there and presented on two separate occasions over two days but that’s not the real reason. Conferences present a space bounded by their start and end date and their location. As such they become a pressure cooker that brings a lot of people close together, very quickly. This helps break down cultural, language and experience barriers.

David Amerland interview at SMXL 2018

Ideas spread only when they can be shared easily and examined quickly so they can be validated or rejected. The act of assessing them that precedes this stage forms a common backdrop of experience. The collective experience of a conference audience becomes a knowledge graph that is powered by the professional activities of the individuals present at a conference. In each interaction individuals share insights, tips and specialized knowledge. This makes every interaction of potential personal gain. The dynamic of this kind of interaction creates value for everyone involved. It promotes the open sharing of ideas and it helps elevate everyone’s knowledge faster and with greater specificity than anything else outside the conference space and time.

David Amerland and Michel Reibel at SMXL 2018There is an extra bonus to all this: the meeting in real life of people who know each other digitally. Within a few short hours I’d met in the flesh Michel Reibel (who's leading a very important digital media initiative in France) and Bill Slawski and Rand Fishkin and caught up with Sante Achille whom I’d been talking to on Hangouts and emailing back and forth for months. As is usual with these things the real life meeting feels like a smooth continuation of the digital world. We all know each other and how each person thinks within the context of our industry. The divisions between what we used to call “real life” and the digital world, these days, are totally blurred.

Data Everywhere

Which brings me of course to the primary reason for this post: what was discussed. There were speakers from all over Europe and the U.S. talking about marketing and branding, search and SEO and, collectively, they were making the same points:

  • Data is now palpable – we live in an age where we have the means to collect or access data and use it in meaningful ways. This changes everything.
  • Technological change is accelerating – the “new shiny” we seek to help us achieve a competitive advantage is more likely to be a concept or an idea than a tool. The accelerated development of technology makes tools obsolete very quickly and the ever expanding use of data makes vanity metrics meaningless.
  • Context is king – we’ve talked about content before and its importance in delivering value, raising visibility, offering branding opportunities and creating identity. None of this work in the wrong context. Content is data. Context changes data. And, to make things even harder, context arises out of culture.
  • People matter – we’ve always known this at some level. But now the individual has become an inescapable part of the reality we face in both the offline and online worlds. Whether we consider this at the level of the consumer, social media network user, marketer or brand manager, the inescapable facts facing us that the moment we treat people as non-descript units in some kind of algorithmic or mass-marketing calculation we are already on a losing stream in terms of their attention and their custom.

Tools Are Transcient

The shift in tone was palpable. Marketing conferences are about marketing in all its variants. From SEO and branding to the user experience and the sales funnel. Tools and analytics are important. Yet this time, in different ways, the focus was on the connection. Relationship-building was deemed more important than the tools being used to establish metrics and do marketing. Empathy and value were highlighted in various ways again and again.

Sante Achilles Bill Slawski and David Amerland at SMXL 2018

The overall message was “Tools change. People don’t”. Learning to humanize the connection with people across digital platform isn’t easy. When the only contact a customer may have with a business is a form on a website, creating a sense of humanity in that interaction requires tremendous analysis, thinking and effort, plus testing (to see what works best). Yet, that’s where the game-changer lies.

The Future Is Uncertain

Rand Fishkin, first, on day two delivered a brilliantly presented, highly focused talk on the future of marketing and branding and search engine optimization. Rand used facts and figures, he pulled from his own experience of SEO and the data he could get his hands on. The time for stunts is over. Tools alone will never get you want you want. There is no one platform, technique, tool, mode of analysis or selling message that will help you win, he basically said.

Rand Fishkin, David Amerland and Bill Hunt at SMXL 2018

What will work is focus on who matters: your customer, the person. The value and values that make relationships viable and change the unique selling proposition from one that focuses on product to one that focuses on the value of the relationship between two entities.

It was incredibly exciting to see that the soft skills I’ve discussed in The Sniper Mind that lead to better decisions and more positive outcomes are now exactly what’s needed in a world of volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity.

Business As Usual But With A Twist

None of this means abandoning any of the tools of the past. Everything we used to sharpen website visibility, project a business identity, deliver the message of a unique selling proposition, still work. But now all of this has to work with an increasing layer of built-in humanization. When data is everywhere and data is everything what makes things work is relevance. Relevance manifests at the touchpoint between a need or a want and the proposition that best satisfies it.

This last sentence is also the summation of SMXL 2018 and the direction business of every kind is heading towards in the 21st century.